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Why Something As Geeky As Real-Time Curators Matters A Lot to Normal People

March 30, 2010

Robert Scoble’s post pushing for more real-time “curation” could represent one of the greatest challenges facing people who increasingly rely on sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with friends, family and colleagues. As we attempt to chronicle our lives by utilizing those services, the ability to compartmentalize and organize information in a way that makes sense to us will be essential.

Everyday, we post content that conveys what’s on our mind, shows where we’ve been, or offers a glimpse into a particular moment in time. It could be a photo album you took on a trip to Big Sur, or a status message describing the jubilant moment of a walk-off home run at Fenway Park. If someone wants to ever say Facebook or Twitter doesn’t matter, they should look no further than these moments people capture. Because for every stupid YouTube video we might upload, there is also a piece of content that rings with meaning and depth.

Each of these information artifacts, piece by piece, tell a story about us. And right now, there’s no good mechanism that allows you to capture, make sense and arrange those moments in a digital scrapbook (at least, there’s not a tool that mainstream web users can see in front of them). As Scoble noted, blogs and e-mail don’t work well enough for this endeavor, and they certainly aren’t visually appealing enough.

Today, we can go back and find things we posted, but the experience can be overwhelming and inefficient. Search — and now social search — allows you to go back and find things you shared with friends, but you will likely have to sieve through tons of irrelevant content that might share the same keyword (especially on Twitter). On Facebook, it doesn’t seem to go very far back in time (I’d still like to know how far back it goes — I can’t find a reliable figure).

Some have contended that Clay Shirky’s theory of Filter Failture would solve the information overload problem that some real-time Web services create for people. Twitter hashtags, for instance, allow you to wall off tweets that people tag (#), such as #redsox or #sfgiants. But even though you have a filter and set up a column for it in a third-party service, the stream of information cascades down and eventually out of sight. Filter tools don’t stop the stream; they just slow it down for your eyes a bit. The real-time information stream of a Facebook or Twitter homepage keeps going. On and on. Relentlessly. Persistently. And that, I think, is the opportunity for real-time curation.

If things like tags and columns act as filters, real-time curation tools should act as a stopper or cork. A curation mechanism should let you bottle up moments that make sense to you. Unlike search, it doesn’t have to be linear, relevant to an algorithm, or relevant to anyone other than yourself and the people close to you.

But in order for real-time curation to be beneficial to normal people, I think it must have some common attributes and avoid some old traps for organizing digital information.

1. Let’s call it something else. I don’t think archive is the right word (too boring), but real-time curation is too abstract for normal people. Normal people who use social networking services don’t even call those sites “real-time” technologies. Something down to earth like “scrapbook” might work, but there’s not shortage of people in the tech community that love to coin phrases, so we should expect a better naming convention to emerge.

2. It must be easy to do later. The notion that normal people will want to do the heavy lifting for curation in the moment is unrealistic. While we can already “favorite” or “like” things on Facebook or Twitter, if you do that enough, it’s still creates a crowded laundry list of content that takes forever to sort through later. We need an easier way to save things to arrange or scrapbook later.

3. Facebook matters more. Since Twitter is not the stream of the mainstream, Facebook should realize that it has a tremendous opportunity to be the digital scrapbook of people’s lives. The information people share here is more scrapbook-worthy than most of the stuff they share on Twitter because the network people keep on Facebook is more private, the content mediums they employ more diverse (not only textual). Unfortunately, memories on Facebook today float downstream and eventually of out sight. The only thing Facebook has an organized system for is pictures.

4. Frame it as an opportunity for people who don’t blog. Most of my friends don’t have blogs, at least ones they actively update. They don’t care to hack that much prose all the time. But they don’t find it difficult to write a status message or upload an album. Real-time curation should be marketed as an opportunity to chronicle those events without blogging.

5. The big guns shouldn’t leave this to third-party developers. Facebook, Google and Twitter must do this themselves for it to be popular. Saying “look at how our developers leveraged our open APIs to build real-time curation tools” is a sentence that won’t see the light of day with 95 percent of social networking users. Of course, they might wait for a third-party developer to figure it out and then copy build it themselves.

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